These ancient people believed mistletoe could cure diseases, make
animals and humans more fertile, provide protection from witches,
and bring good luck. In fact, mistletoe was so sacred to the
Druids that if two enemies met beneath a tree on which it was
growing, they would lay down their weapons, exchange greetings,
and observe a truce until the following day!
When the Druids found mistletoe growing on an oak tree, they used
a golden knife to remove it, taking care that the sacred plant did
not touch the ground to protect its special powers. They then
sacrificed a white ox to consecrate the event.
Mistletoe was not allowed in Christian places of worship for many
years because of its widespread acceptance in pagan ceremonies.
But it is not clear just how it became part of the Christmas
Mistletoe is the common name for any one of a hundred species of
plants from as far away and diverse climates as Australia, South
Africa, and Europe. Our traditional American mistletoe (Phoradenron
leucarpum) is very similar to the European species, (Viscum
album), only with shorter and broader leaves, and more
berries (groups of ten or more compared to clusters of two to six
berries in the European species). These species are in the
Santalaceae family, one of three mistletoe families, formerly all
under the name Viscaceae.
The common name is said to come from the Anglo-Saxon “Misteltan”,
“tan” meaning twig and “mistl” meaning different. This refers to
the fact the plant is different from the twigs it grows on.
Another version attributes the name to the word “mistel” for dung,
referring to the bird droppings of seeds which spread the plant.
The Latin name of the genus means “sticky”, and refers to the
viscous or sticky juice of the berries.
This slow-growing plant forms a greenish-yellow evergreen shrub
that grows two to three feet long, hanging from tree branches. The
male and female flowers of the mistletoe are borne on compact
spikes on separate plants. The tiny, yellow flowers that appear in
late fall soon give rise to the familiar white berries. These
attract many birds which, if plants are in junipers, also eat the
juniper berries. This results in denser stands supporting more
Mistletoe will parasitize many hosts, among them apple trees,
poplars, lindens, willows, and, more rarely, oaks. Structures
called “haustoria” attach it to trees, through which it extracts
water and nutrition from them. A botanical anomaly, it is the
only complete plant considered a true parasite for it often kills
the hardwood tree it infests. There is even a legend regarding
In Brittany, it is called “herbe de la croix”, or herb of the
cross. According to the legend, the wood of this plant was used
for the Christ Cross, afterwards being reduced to a parasite. In
the fourteenth century it was called “lignum crucis,” or wood of
Most American mistletoe is commercially harvested in Texas,
Oklahoma, and New Mexico. It grows in the wild in the southern
states, as far north as West Virginia. The custom of hanging up mistletoe may stem from the Druid
tradition of laying down arms and exchanging greetings under
mistletoe. Priests would send around youth bearing branches of
mistletoe in celebration of the new year. Druids would dance
around oaks they found bearing mistletoe. This custom even is
mentioned in the writings of Ovid.
So where did kissing under the mistletoe begin? One legend
attributes this practice to the English who, after every kiss,
plucked a berry from the bunch and discarded it. When the berries
were gone, tradition called for the kissing to stop. Needless to
say, plentiful bunches were eagerly sought for the holidays.
Another legend comes from Scandinavia, and is alluded to by
Shakespeare. In this legend Balder, the god of Peace, was killed
by an arrow made of mistletoe. His life was restored at the
request of other gods and goddesses, with the mistletoe being
given to the goddess of love to prevent such from happening
again. She said that everyone who passed under it should receive
a kiss to show this plant was a symbol of love, and not of hate.
Before getting carried away with this symbol of love, be aware
that the European mistletoe has been used medicinally for many
centuries, and still is. It has been used as a general cure for
most ailments, particularly in Korean and Chinese medicine. In
Europe, preparations from it are used for treating cancer while in
the U.S. this use has not been approved. Studies suggest that
this plant may be beneficial for treating HIV, hypertension, and
diabetes. Research and authorities often disagree on its
benefits, and interactions with other products, so it is advised
to consult your pharmacist or doctor before using this plant for
other than decoration.
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